A Marine who served on the USS Boxer during a 2016 deployment that saw the ship dump fuel, only to contaminate its own water supply, has successfully received disability compensation that previously had been denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs, following a Military.com investigation that revealed the scope of the incident.
The change of heart by the VA could pave the way for other veterans to receive disability pay for an event that the Navy publicly acknowledged only after the news outlet presented evidence to the service ahead of publication.
In June, Military.com published an exclusive look at how the Boxer accidentally compromised its own water supply when a senior enlisted sailor ordered junior sailors to intentionally dump diesel fuel into the ocean. The report, based on interviews with key personnel on the ship as well as Navy documents, detailed a mishap that sailors and Marines who served on the Boxer say had been swept under the rug.
The Marine, who was a lance corporal at the time of the incident, said in an interview with Military.com that she had submitted a copy of the investigation in a new application for disability benefits after prior filings had been denied. She was one of several service members who described having skin issues after the deployment and, when she separated from the Corps, she filed a disability claim for "irritant contact dermatitis" with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Military.com is withholding the former lance corporal's name at her request, as she still works for the U.S. government and believes she could face retaliation for speaking with the press.
In her initial filing, the Marine, who did not have proof that the water on the Boxer was tainted with fuel, received a 0% disability rating, a decision that entitled her to a few VA benefits but no monthly payments.
After the investigation was published, however, the Marine refiled her claim and included Military.com's coverage of the incident in her documentation. Her rating was increased to 30% -- a decision that comes with a monthly payment of at least $524.
The Marine said that she has been in contact with others who served on the ship and they also have been denied benefits previously.
"To my understanding, everybody that has tried [applying for disability] aside for myself has been denied," she said.
In response to the findings detailed in Military.com's investigation, a Navy spokesman said the "USS Boxer's leadership and crew took immediate and appropriate measures to restrict access to the ship's potable water. After conducting a thorough flush and inspection of the ship's potable water system, fresh water was restored."
Beyond the potential benefits, other Marines who spoke to Military.com said that the report, and the admission by the Navy, finally helped them understand the potential cause of medical conditions that have been plaguing them for years.
Another Marine who served aboard the ship in 2016 told Military.com in an interview that he's had "stomach issues like crazy" ever since the deployment.
He said he has to eat large amounts of fiber "just to be able to get through a day without crushing stomach issues," or he skips eating altogether.
Until the article came out, the Marine said he attributed the issues to something he ate overseas on deployment or the stress of serving. He now has filed a disability claim for the condition.
"Until someone literally showed me your piece, I had never in my life made the connection that my stomach issues were probably from the Boxer," he said before adding that he was "kind of kicking [himself] for not realizing it earlier -- that for the last 10 years all these stomach issues was probably because I drank gasoline for a couple of weeks."
He's not alone. The Marine said that attending a recent wedding gave him a chance to reunite with friends from that deployment, and "we were all trading stories."
What struck the now-discharged Marine was "the amount of horror stories" of health issues his friends are facing.
The Marine said the group has "a lot of skin issues, a lot of long-term increases in eye issues and other problems" like lost eyesight, despite being in their 30s.
"It's probably the f---ing gasoline we all drank," the Marine recalled the group concluding.
'Everything Was Fine'
Military.com detailed in its investigation how the dumped fuel was sucked up into the system that creates water for the crew, and that it infiltrated nearly every sink and shower. The Marine said that one day he woke up "to the shower smelling like gasoline."
Despite his concerns, the Marine said he and his fellow service members were told by their officers that there was nothing to worry about.
"I remember the CO literally coming over the comms and basically saying everything was fine," he told Military.com.
The Marine spoke to Military.com under the condition of anonymity because, like the former lance corporal, he works for the federal government.
The Boxer incident is far from the only issue the Navy has faced with drinking water on ships, with the water of the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Abraham Lincoln contaminated with fuel and bacteria, respectively, in the past year.
Like the Boxer's commander years before, Navy Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt, CO of the Abraham Lincoln, told the crew the water was fine despite their concerns.
In cell phone videos recorded by the crew and posted online, Bauernschmidt is heard using the ship-wide announcement system to tell the crew she "purposely" showered the night before and it "was marvelous."
Shipboard testing later determined there was E. coli bacteria in three of the ship's water tanks related to a leak from the bilge -- the part of the ship that catches waste runoff. Bauernschmidt told her crew "before anybody starts freaking out ... E. coli is an extremely common bacteria."
A later investigation found that the Lincoln's crew not only missed four opportunities for sailors to identify and flag the water contamination before it spread throughout the ship, but Bauernschmidt waited until the next day to begin informing the crew of the problem.
Multiple sailors and Marines aboard the Boxer in 2016 told Military.com that leaders on that ship -- including the ship's senior medical officer -- claimed repeatedly the water was safe to drink.
"They did so good at convincing us that it was just not a big deal," one of the Marines recalled.
Few records of the contamination exist, making filing a disability claim a challenge for the sailors and Marines now discovering or connecting their health issues to the deployment. The ship's emails were wiped as part of routine IT maintenance, according to the Navy, and no official reports detailing the incident ever went up the chain of command, according to public records requests by Military.com.
Very few human studies have been conducted on the long-term health effects of consuming fuel of any type. Short-term exposure can cause skin irritation or swelling and burning through direct contact. Inhaling fumes may cause symptoms such as headache, dizziness, confusion, nausea or vomiting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some animal studies have demonstrated that fuel exposure may cause some types of cancer and neurological damage, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The VA doesn't deny that exposure to fuel occurs or that it is harmful to service members.
A 2023 VA presentation notes that jet fuel exposure is "one of the most common exposures in military service."
But that admission doesn't mean veterans automatically qualify for health care or disability benefits as a result of their exposure. In June, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said that the department uses various methods to build connections between military service and certain illnesses.
McDonough said that affected veterans can file a claim, and if that claim is denied, the veteran can file an appeal.
"The veteran does obviously have a right to higher-level review and the veteran has a right to appeal at the Board of Veterans Appeals," McDonough said in response to a question about the Boxer incident at a June 27 press conference. "And so, I hope that every veteran, if they feel that they've gotten the wrong ruling, will avail themselves of those appeal options."
The challenge of filing a claim for a condition that is not presumed to be service-connected is that veterans must prove, with documentation and records, that their illness or injury occurred as a result of military service.
Until the Navy admitted that the Boxer did, in fact, experience at least some fuel contamination, crew members filing claims struggled to make the connection that their issues came from fuel exposure that happened while serving in the military.
One Marine told Military.com in an email that, after he returned from the 2016 deployment, the electronic medical records -- "the ones chock full of reports about health incidents related to fuel consumption/exposure" -- went missing.
He said he and his fellow Marines pressed their leaders about this "as many of us were concerned about disability claims post-separation," but they were told there was no fuel exposure "and then promptly briefed by our command how the entire duration in 5th Fleet was classified and therefore going to the press or pursuing legal recourse would be illegal."
Aaron Rawlings, then a Navy corpsman assigned to a Marine reconnaissance platoon on the deployment, preserved an email from the time of the contamination that had the subject line "fuel in the water" and was categorized as being of "high" importance. The email, signed by the Marine unit's watch officer, tells the crew: "Be advised, there is fuel in the water. There is bottled water on the mess decks for consumption."
Rawlings told Military.com that he wanted the incident documented in case the exposure created health issues later on, so he placed a copy of the email in each of his Marines' medical files. However, the former lance corporal who served on the Boxer said this effort was not enough.
She hopes that now more service members will find the process of getting compensation for their medical issues easier, but she is skeptical that the Navy will do anything to help.
"I sure as s--t would wish, but you know how that goes," she quipped.
-- James LaPorta contributed to this report.